Howe Gelb & Grant-Lee Phillips - Brudenell Social Club Leeds, UK - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

Howe Gelb & Grant-Lee Phillips - Brudenell Social Club Leeds, UK

by Andy Brown Rating:10 Release Date:2012-02-20

While I didn’t know quite what to expect, I knew a show with Howe Gelb and Grant-Lee Phillips as co-headliners would make for a unique evening.  

Born in 1956 and with over 50 albums to his name, Gelb has lived and breathed music for a long time. He recorded a large chunk of those LPs as part of Americana legends, Giant Sand. His music has taken on many influences from blues and country to flamenco, all delivered with his gravel-like surrealist tones.  

Born in 1963, Phillips is perhaps best known as the singer and songwriting force behind Americana rock band, Grant-Lee Buffalo. The band found fame in 1993 with the release of their much lauded and loved Fuzzy LP.

Wearing a suit and fedora, Howe Gelb had the look of a bearded Leonard Cohen as he strolled onto the Brudenell’s stage; a relaxed troubadour with a head full of songs. While rifling through bits of paper on the keyboard, Gelb serenaded us with snippets of ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘As Time Goes By’, and ‘Moon River’. This opening gambit was delivered with the wit and casualness of a stand-up routine; the slightly bemused crowd laughing approvingly in-between applause.

Gelb approached the performance in the manner of a man playing songs to a few friends in the early hours. Clearly a man who felt at home on the stage, Gelb’s natural charisma won the Brudenell crowd over almost immediately. Finishing with the piano, he casually scooped-up his guitar for few of his own songs before inviting his friend and touring partner Phillips to the stage.  

Grant-Lee Phillips was an entirely different prospect as a performer and songwriter, despite their obvious similarities (an interest in Americana and the mapping out the American psyche). Phillips’ songs were stylistically simpler but carried a power all of their own. These were huge, heartfelt ballads delivered in Phillips impassioned, unrestrained style, the highlight of this first set being a stunning performance of ‘Fuzzy’ as Phillips wailed: “I’ve been lied to… Now, I’m fuzzy”

After a brief break and costume change, Howe began the second set with Giant Sand classic, ‘Shiver’. Howe can switch from a sharp-witted comedian to purveyor of dusty, beautiful Americana with the pluck of a string.

It’s this capacity as a performer that makes every second he’s on stage so thoroughly captivating. At one point Gelb told us that he records his songs before he really learns them, the ideas simply aloud to tumble out onto tape in the studio. It’s this approach that lends his performance such spontaneity and the feeling that you’re watching someone’s creative process in real time.

After introducing a new song entitled ‘Texting Feist’, it took Gelb about four attempts before he can remember the second verse. We were completely on his side as he tried to remember the elusive verse in-between other songs and it was a triumphant and undeniably amusing moment when he finally nailed it. It’s important to say that this wasn't some kind of shambolic, Pete Doherty-type performance, it just wasn't some incredibly rigid and drilled-within-an–inch-of-its-life one either.

Howe is an incredible songwriter, a craftsman in the mould of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Bill Callahan and Tom Waits. The likes of dark, country-ballad ‘Put Your House in Order’ displayed his incredible talent and brought a hushed, respectful, silence to the room.

Phillips’ songwriting is closer in spirit to the likes of Ryan Adams; big-hearted songs sang with passion. ‘Jupiter & Teardrop’ was performed with all the gusto such a song deserves, Phillips voice almost elemental as he howled along. An audience member repeatedly shouted for ‘Silent Arrow’, when Phillips finally agreed it was undeniably special.

The final section of the performance saw both artists play a few pieces together, the highlight being a stunning rendition of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’. Phillips took lead vocal while Howe threaded a particularly beautiful version of Willie Nelsons ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ into the middle-eight.

Howe and Phillips certainly make for something of an ‘odd couple’ on stage, yet there’s an undeniable chemistry and camaraderie between the two men that really works. Like all great live music, the performance was firmly rooted in the moment, each moment imbued with spontaneity and the natural showmanship of our two hosts. An unrepeatable, truly unique and really special performance. 

Comments (2)

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I'm a fan of both. Seriously, you get all the great gigs ! Did Grant Lee P do "Mighty Joe" ? Loved Gelb doing "Red Right Hand" with Giant Sand.

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Yeah, they're both pretty awesome. Not sure about the Grant-Lee song, I only really know the Fuzzy album- love that though. Howe was such a great performer!

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